South Korea’s Deputy Prime Minister Hyun Oh-seok (who is also the Minister of Strategy and Finance) met with foreign journalists last month to promote the president’s long-term economic goals. From market deregulation to fostering new industries, the “Three-Year Plan for Economic Innovation” attempts to reinvigorate South Korea’s future economy with various policies including female employment.
Since her election campaign, South Korean President Park Geun-hye has championed childcare support as the central solution to increase economic participation among women. Her administration has maintained this strategy, making it their leading policy for women’s rights.
In his keynote speech for the 3-year plan, Minister Hyun used one sentence to specify how the government will improve female employment, “[C]ustomized childcare support, and promoting flexible work-hours.”
The Park administration’s basis for focusing on childcare derives from what economists call, “the M curve,” which outlines the tendencies of working South Korean women. In their 20s, females have a higher labor force participation rate than their male counterparts (as well as a higher college graduation rate). But in their 30s, this number significantly declines and does not pick up until they are over 40.
From ages 30 to 39, economic participation among South Korean women is one of the lowest globally, according to a report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in 2013, ranking 111th out of 136 countries for gender gap. Only one out of three women work during their 30s, citing difficulties balancing work and family life. “That is why we are providing a lot of policies supporting childcare,” affirmed Hyun, “We are giving the most support for childcare compared to any other previous administration.”
However, the government is using childcare as a measure for equality to veil an ulterior motive: to encourage childbearing with policies that reinforce conservative gender norms.
In a nationwide survey conducted by the Federation of Korean Industries in 2010, marriage was the leading cause for South Korean women to quit their jobs – not childrearing. According to the poll, females in general have a 37.8 percent higher chance to give up work after getting married than if they were single – a percentage that shoots up to 58.2 for those in their 20s. The likelihood, however, of married mothers to leave their jobs was only 2.9 percent higher than married women without children. The federation explains these statistics by saying it is due to the foundational social belief that females should be full-time homemakers.
This is further observed in a recent study conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which found that among developed countries, South Korea ranked lowest in sharing of housework. The study found that on average, married men in South Korea spend a total of 45 minutes daily doing housework–10 minutes of which go into childcare.
Despite these numbers, measures to change cultural expectations – that it is not only the woman’s responsibility to care for children – are being opposed. In January, the Ministry of Labor and the Ministry of Strategy and Finance rejected one of President Park’s campaign promises: mandatory paid paternity leave, or “Father’s Month.” Ministry officials quoted potential financial problems such as the depletion of employment reserve funding for the opposition against the bill. They added that they will work towards a resolution but are unsure how they will initiate it.
Still, the government is taking measures to make childbearing appealing. Under the new guidelines for employment support, families with a second child will not only receive 100 percent paid paternity leave but will also be guaranteed 100 percent maternity leave without reductions. In addition, the government decided in March to reduce daily working hours for pregnant women by 2 hours – only applicable for those in their 1st or 3rd trimester.
All these, however, are additive to the “Three-Year Plan for Economic Innovation.” During the speech for her one-year anniversary as president, Park Geun-hye presented the plan to the public for the first time.
“It is my political conviction that I must work to achieve a second miracle on the Han River to place our economy on a rock-solid foundation and usher in an era of happiness for the people,” the last bit being the motto for the economic plan. This speech, in its intelligent writing, has many implications and uses nostalgia to invoke hope. The so-called “first miracle on the Han River” was lead by Park Geun-hye’s father, President Park Chung-hee, who led the nation through dictatorial rule from 1961 until his assassination in 1979. Despite his controversial rule, many view his leadership in a positive light for the economic prowess it has brought to the country. The miracle is accredited to South Korea’s strong work ethic, which utilized the country’s large baby boomer population to pull itself out of poverty from the aftermath of the Korean War. And this is the precursor, a crucial point, for miracles to happen on the Han River: having a viable workforce.
Currently, South Korea is considered a super-aging society – the fastest in the world. Due to the country’s low fertility rates and expanded life span, the population is becoming less and less competitive. By 2050, the median age of the country will be 57 while the youth population will be half its present number. So the government is frantically working to increase the population. According to Minister Hyun, “One of [our many challenges] is the potential decline in the working population so female employment is viewed with the utmost importance.” But rather than viewing female employment as a solution to the country’s population problem, striving for women’s equality as a basic cause could naturally solve many of the country’s dilemmas.
With traditional household dynamics – the man as the breadwinner – the fertility problem remains unsolved. One of the main reasons South Korean families choose to have fewer babies is the high cost of raising children. Couples want financial stability but with a one-person income, raising even one child presents its own hardships. South Korea now has almost exactly as many females as males – the closest the two populations have been since such data was recorded. Another way put, there is potential for multiple breadwinners. But on top of low economic participation marks, the WEF ranking of South Korea is a result of the lack of women’s representation in decision-making positions. It would be more precise to describe South Korea’s glass ceiling as a concrete roof. Less than 1 percent of the country’s CEOs are women; the gender pay gap is the highest in the OECD at almost 40 percent; but policies to support women primarily emphasize childcare, cementing their roles only as mothers.
Other policies outside childcare are open-ended and only planned for the short-term. When asked how the government would ensure women’s job security and upward mobility, Minister Hyun replied, “[W]e would have to encourage companies to change their positions or regulations regarding promotions,” which means it would not be mandatory. This is similar to what President Park said in her anniversary speech for flexible work hours for pregnant women.
“In order to increase the number of jobs ideal for women, it is urgent that we renew efforts to push part-time jobs with flexible working hours. For this reason, the Government will give full-time workers the right to opt for part-time working arrangements if working hours need to be reduced because of childcare, pregnancy or other caretaking responsibilities,” says Park, but ends with, “We will expand opportunities for them to receive priority consideration when applying for newly available full-time positions.” Simply put, flexible work hours need to be available for potential mothers but after the decision to go part-time, their previous positions will not be guaranteed.
This rhetoric also translates into the funding of the “Three-Year Plan for Economic Innovation,” where money for childcare is the only policy guaranteed until 2017. Other measures that could impact the working environment on the other hand, including leave benefits, maternity protection, reemployment, and tax breaks for hiring able mothers will only be available this year.
These traditional ideologies are embedded in President Park Geun-hye’s administration. Only one female, the Minister of Gender Equality and Family, stands in her 17-member cabinet. But according to the Deputy Prime Minister, “The mere fact that the South Korean president is a woman shows that this country is highly committed to improving the job situation for women.”